Thrawn Janet by Robert Louis Stevenson
The Reverend Murdoch Soulis was long minister of the moorland parish of
Balweary, in the vale of Dule. A severe, bleak-faced old man, dreadful to
his hearers, he dwelt in the last years of his life, without relative or
servant or any human company, in the small and lonely manse under the
Hanging Shaw. In spite of the iron composure of his features, his eye was
wild, scared, and uncertain; and when he dwelt, in private admonitions, on
the future of the impenitent, it seemed as if his eye pierced through the
storms of time to the terrors of eternity. Many young persons, coming to
prepare themselves against the season of the holy communion, were
dreadfully affected by his talk. He had a sermon on I Pet. V. 8, "The
devil as a roaring lion," on the Sunday after every 17th of August, and he
was accustomed to surpass himself upon that text both by the appalling
nature of the matter and the terror of his bearing in the pulpit. The
children were frightened into fits, and the old looked more than usually
oracular, and were, all that day, full of those hints that Hamlet
deprecated. The manse itself, where it stood by the water of Dule among
some thick trees, with the Shaw overhanging it on the one side, and on the
other many cold, moorish hilltops rising toward the sky, had begun, at a
very early period of Mr. Soulis's ministry, to be avoided in the dusk
hours by all who valued themselves upon their prudence; and guidmen
sitting at the clachan alehouse shook their heads together at the thought
of passing late by that uncanny neighbourhood. There was one spot, to be
more particular, which was regarded with especial awe. The manse stood
between the highroad and the water of Dule, with a gable to each; its bank
was toward the kirktown of Balweary, nearly half a mile away; in front of
it, a bare garden, hedged with thorn, occupied the land between the river
and the road. The house was two stories high, with two large rooms on
each. It opened not directly on the garden, but on a causewayed path, or
passage, giving on the road on the one hand, and closed on the other by
the tall willows and elders that bordered on the stream. And it was this
strip of causeway that enjoyed among the young parishioners of Balweary so
infamous a reputation. The minister walked there often after dark,
sometimes groaning aloud in the instancy of his unspoken prayers; and when
he was from home, and the manse door was locked, the more daring
school-boys ventured, with beating hearts, to "follow my leader" across
that legendary spot.
This atmosphere of terror, surrounding, as it did, a man of God of
spotless character and orthodoxy, was a common cause of wonder and subject
of inquiry among the few strangers who were led by chance or business into
that unknown, outlying country. But many even of the people of the parish
were ignorant of the strange events which had marked the first year of Mr.
Soulis's ministrations; and among those who were better informed, some
were naturally reticent, and others shy of that particular topic. Now and
again, only, one of the older folk would warm into courage over his third
tumbler, and recount the cause of the minister's strange looks and
Fifty years syne, when Mr. Soulis cam' first into Ba'weary, he was still a
young man,—a callant, the folk said,—fu' o' book-learnin' and
grand at the exposition, but, as was natural in sae young a man, wi' nae
leevin' experience in religion. The younger sort were greatly taken wi'
his gifts and his gab; but auld, concerned, serious men and women were
moved even to prayer for the young man, whom they took to be a
self-deceiver, and the parish that was like to be sae ill supplied. It was
before the days o' the Moderates—weary fa' them; but ill things are
like guid—they baith come bit by bit, a pickle at a time; and there
were folk even then that said the Lord had left the college professors to
their ain devices, an' the lads that went to study wi' them wad hae done
mair and better sittin' in a peat-bog, like their forebears of the
persecution, wi' a Bible under their oxter and a speerit o' prayer in
their heart. There was nae doubt, onyway, but that Mr. Soulis had been
ower-lang at the college. He was careful and troubled for mony things
besides the ae thing needful. He had a feck o' books wi' him—mair
than had ever been seen before in a' that presbytery; and a sair wark the
carrier had wi' them, for they were a' like to have smoored in the Deil's
Hag between this and Kilmackerlie. They were books o' divinity, to be
sure, or so they ca'd them; but the serious were o' opinion there was
little service for sae mony, when the hail o' God's Word would gang in the
neuk of a plaid. Then he wad sit half the day and half the nicht forby,
which was scant decent—writin', nae less; and first they were feard
he wad read his sermons; and syne it proved he was writin' a book himsel',
which was surely no fittin' for ane of his years an' sma' experience.
Onyway, it behooved him to get an auld, decent wife to keep the manse for
him an' see to his bit denners; and he was recommended to an auld limmer,—Janet
M'Clour, they ca'd her,—and sae far left to himsel' as to be
ower-persuaded. There was mony advised him to the contrar', for Janet was
mair than suspeckit by the best folk in Ba'weary. Lang or that, she had
had a wean to a dragoon; she hadnae come forrit for maybe thretty year;
and bairns had seen her mumblin' to hersel' up on Key's Loan in the
gloamin', whilk was an unco time an' place for a God-fearin' woman.
Howsoever, it was the laird himsel' that had first tauld the minister o'
Janet; and in thae days he wad have gane a far gate to pleesure the laird.
When folk tauld him that Janet was sib to the deil, it was a' superstition
by his way of it; and' when they cast up the Bible to him, an' the witch
of Endor, he wad threep it doun their thrapples that thir days were a'
gane by, and the deil was mercifully restrained.
Weel, when it got about the clachan that Janet M'Clour was to be servant
at the manse, the folk were fair mad wi' her an' him thegether; and some
o' the guidwives had nae better to dae than get round her door-cheeks and
chairge her wi' a' that was kent again' her, frae the sodger's bairn to
John Tamson's twa kye. She was nae great speaker; folk usually let her
gang her ain gait, an' she let them gang theirs, wi' neither fair
guid-e'en nor fair guid-day; but when she buckled to, she had a tongue to
deave the miller. Up she got, an' there wasnae an auld story in Ba'weary
but she gart somebody lowp for it that day; they couldnae say ae thing but
she could say twa to it; till, at the hinder end, the guidwives up and
claught haud of her, and clawed the coats aff her back, and pu'd her doun
the clachan to the water o' Dule, to see if she were a witch or no, soum
or droun. The carline skirled till ye could hear her at the Hangin' Shaw,
and she focht like ten; there was mony a guid wife bure the mark of her
neist day an' mony a lang day after; and just in the hettest o' the
collieshangie, wha suld come up (for his sins) but the new minister.
"Women," said he (and he had a grand voice), "I charge you in the Lord's
name to let her go."
Janet ran to him—she was fair wud wi' terror—an' clang to him,
an' prayed him, for Christ's sake, save her frae the cummers; an' they,
for their pairt, tauld him a' that was kent, and maybe mair.
"Woman," says he to Janet, "is this true?"
"As the Lord sees me," says she, "as the Lord made me, no a word o' 't.
Forby the bairn," says she, "I've been a decent woman a' my days."
"Will you," says Mr. Soulis, "in the name of God, and before me, His
unworthy minister, renounce the devil and his works?"
Weel, it wad appear that, when he askit that, she gave a girn that fairly
frichtit them that saw her, an' they could hear her teeth play dirl
thegether in her chafts; but there was naething for it but the ae way or
the ither; an' Janet lifted up her hand and renounced the deil before them
"And now," says Mr. Soulis to the guidwives, "home with ye, one and all,
and pray to God for His forgiveness."
And he gied Janet his arm, though she had little on her but a sark, and
took her up the clachan to her ain door like a leddy of the land, an' her
scrieghin' and laughin' as was a scandal to be heard.
There were mony grave folk lang ower their prayers that nicht; but when
the morn cam' there was sic a fear fell upon a' Ba'weary that the bairns
hid theirsel's, and even the men folk stood and keekit frae their doors.
For there was Janet comin' doun the clachan,—her or her likeness,
nane could tell,—wi' her neck thrawn, and her heid on ae side, like
a body that has been hangit, and a girn on her face like an unstreakit
corp. By-an'-by they got used wi' it, and even speered at her to ken what
was wrang; but frae that day forth she couldnae speak like a Christian
woman, but slavered and played click wi' her teeth like a pair o' shears;
and frae that day forth the name o' God cam' never on her lips. Whiles she
wad try to say it, but it michtnae be. Them that kenned best said least;
but they never gied that Thing the name o' Janet M'Clour; for the auld
Janet, by their way o' 't, was in muckle hell that day. But the minister
was neither to haud nor to bind; he preached about naething but the folk's
cruelty that had gien her a stroke of the palsy; he skelpt the bairns that
meddled her; and he had her up to the manse that same nicht, and dwalled
there a' his lane wi' her under the Hangin' Shaw.
Weel, time gaed by, and the idler sort commenced to think mair lichtly o'
that black business. The minister was weel thocht o'; he was aye late at
the writing—folk wad see his can'le doon by the Dule Water after
twal' at e'en; and he seemed pleased wi' himsel' and upsitten as at first,
though a' body could see that he was dwining. As for Janet, she cam' an'
she gaed; if she didnae speak muckle afore, it was reason she should speak
less then; she meddled naebody; but she was an eldritch thing to see, an'
nane wad hae mistrysted wi' her for Ba'weary glebe.
About the end o' July there cam' a spell o' weather, the like o' 't never
was in that countryside; it was lown an' het an' heartless; the herds
couldnae win up the Black Hill, the bairns were ower-weariet to play; an'
yet it was gousty too, wi' claps o' het wund that rummled in the glens,
and bits o' shouers that slockened naething. We aye thocht it but to
thun'er on the morn; but the morn cam', an' the morn's morning, and it was
aye the same uncanny weather; sair on folks and bestial. Of a' that were
the waur, nane suffered like Mr. Soulis; he could neither sleep nor eat,
he tauld his elders; an' when he wasnae writin' at his weary book, he wad
be stravaguin' ower a' the country-side like a man possessed, when a' body
else was blithe to keep caller ben the house.
Abune Hangin' Shaw, in the bield o' the Black Hill, there's a bit enclosed
grund wi' an iron yert; and it seems, in the auld days, that was the
kirkyaird o' Ba'weary, and consecrated by the papists before the blessed
licht shone upon the kingdom. It was a great howff, o' Mr. Soulis's
onyway; there he would sit an' consider his sermons' and inded it's a
bieldy bit. Weel, as he came ower the wast end o' the Black Hill, ae day,
he saw first twa, an' syne fower, an' syne seeven corbie craws fleein'
round an' round abune the auld kirkyaird. They flew laigh and heavy, an'
squawked to ither as they gaed; and it was clear to Mr. Soulis that
something had put them frae their ordinar. He wasna easy fleyed, an' gaed
straucht up to the wa's; and what suld he find there but a man, or the
appearance of a man, sittin' in the inside upon a grave. He was of a great
stature, an' black as hell, and his een were singular to see. Mr. Soulis
had heard tell o' black men, mony's the time; but there was something unco
abut this black man that daunted him. Het as he was, he took a kind o'
cauld grue in the marrow o' his banes; but up he spak' for a' that; an'
says he, "My friend, are you a stranger in this place?" The black man
answered never a word; he got upon his feet, an' begude to hirsel to the
wa' on the far side; but he aye lookit at the minister; an' the minister
stood an' lookit back; till a' in a meenute the black man was ower the wa'
an' rinnin' for the bield o' the trees. Mr. Soulis, he hardly kenned why,
ran after him; but he was sair forjaskit wi' his walk an' the het,
unhalesome weather; and rin as he likit, he got nae mair than a glisk o'
the black man amang the birks, till he won doun to the foot o' the
hillside, an' there he saw him ance mair, gaun, hap, step, an' lowp, ower
Dule Water to the manse.
Mr. Soulis wasna weel pleased that this fearsome gangrel suld mak' sae
free wi' Ba'weary manse; an' he ran the harder, an' wet shoon, ower the
burn, an' up the walk; but the deil a black man was there to see. He
stepped out upon the road, but there was naebody there; he gaed a' ower
the gairden, but na, nae black man. At the hinder end, and a bit feard as
was but natural, he lifted the hasp and into the manse; and there was
Janet M'Clour before his een, wi' her thrawn craig, and nane sae pleased
to see him. And he aye minded sinsyne, when first he set his een upon her,
he had the same cauld and deidy grue.
"Janet," says he, "have you seen a black man?"
"A black man?" quo' she. "Save us a'! Ye 're no wise, minister. There's
nae black man in a' Ba'weary."
But she didna speak plain, ye maun understand; but yam-yammered, like a
powny wi' the bit in its moo.
"Weel," says he, "Janet, if there was nae black man, I have spoken with
the Accuser of the Brethren."
And he sat down like ane wi' a fever, an' his teeth chittered in his heid.
"Hoots!" says she, "think shame to yoursel', minister," an' gied him a
drap brandy that she keept aye by her.
Syne Mr. Soulis gaed into his study amang a' his books. It's a lang,
laigh, mirk chalmer, perishin' cauld in winter, an' no very dry even in
the top o' the simmer, for the manse stands near the burn. Sae doun he
sat, and thocht of a' that had come an' gane since he was in Ba'weary, an'
his hame, an' the days when he was a bairn an' ran daffin' on the braes;
and that black man aye ran in his heid like the owercome of a sang. Aye
the mair he thocht, the mair he thocht o' the black man. He tried the
prayer, an' the words wouldnae come to him; an' he tried, they say, to
write at his book, but he couldnae mak' nae mair o' that. There was whiles
he thocht the black man was at his oxter, an' the swat stood upon him
cauld as well-water; and there was other whiles when he cam' to himsel'
like a christened bairn and minded naething.
The upshot was that he gaed to the window an' stood glowrin' at Dule
Water. The trees are unco thick, an' the water lies deep an' black under
the manse; and there was Janet washing' the cla'es wi' her coats kilted.
She had her back to the minister, an' he for his pairt, hardly kenned what
he was lookin' at. Syne she turned round, an' shawed her face; Mr. Soulis
had the same cauld grue as twice that day afore, an' it was borne in upon
him what folk said, that Janet was deid lang syne, an' this was a bogle in
her clay-cauld flesh. He drew back a pickle and he scanned her narrowly.
She was tramp-trampin' in the cla'es, croonin' to hersel'; and eh! Gude
guide us, but it was a fearsome face. Whiles she sang louder, but there
was nae man born o' woman that could tell the words o' her sang; an'
whiles she lookit sidelang doun, but there was naething there for her to
look at. There gaed a scunner through the flesh upon his banes; and that
was Heeven's advertisement. But Mr. Soulis just blamed himsel', he said,
to think sae ill of a puir auld afflicted wife that hadnae a freend forby
himsel'; an' he put up a bit prayer for him an' her, an' drank a little
caller water,—for his heart rose again' the meat,—an' gaed up
to his naked bed in the gloaming.
That was a nicht that has never been forgotten in Ba'weary, the nicht o'
the seeventeenth of August, seventeen hun'er' an' twal'. It had been het
afore, as I hae said, but that nicht it was hetter than ever. The sun gaed
doun amang unco-lookin' clouds; it fell as mirk as the pit; no a star, no
a breath o' wund; ye couldnae see your han' afore your face, and even the
auld folk cuist the covers frae their beds and lay pechin' for their
breath. Wi' a' that he had upon his mind, it was gey and unlikely Mr.
Soulis wad get muckle sleep. He lay an' he tummled; the gude, caller bed
that he got into brunt his very banes; whiles he slept, and whiles he
waukened; whiles he heard the time o' nicht, and whiles a tike yowlin' up
the muir, as if somebody was deid; whiles he thocht he heard bogles
claverin' in his lug, an' whiles he saw spunkies in the room. He behooved,
he judged, to be sick; an' sick he was—little he jaloosed the
At the hinder end, he got a clearness in his mind, sat up in his sark on
the bedside, and fell thinkin' ance mair o' the black man an' Janet. He
couldnae weel tell how,—maybe it was the cauld to his feet,—but
it cam' in upon him wi' a spate that there was some connection between
thir twa, an' that either or baith o' them were bogles. And just at that
moment, in Janet's room, which was neist to his, there cam' a stamp o'
feet as if men were wars'lin', an' then a loud bang; an' then a wund gaed
reishling round the fower quarters of the house; an' then a' was ance mair
as seelent as the grave.
Mr. Soulis was feard for neither man nor deevil. He got his tinder-box,
an' lit a can'le, an' made three steps o' 't ower to Janet's door. It was
on the hasp, an' he pushed it open, an' keeked bauldly in. It was a big
room, as big as the minister's ain, an' plenished wi' grand, auld, solid
gear, for he had naething else. There was a fower-posted bed wi' auld
tapestry; and a braw cabinet of aik, that was fu' o' the minister's
divinity books, an' put there to be out o' the gate; an' a wheen duds o'
Janet's lying here and there about the floor. But nae Janet could Mr.
Soulis see, nor ony sign of a contention. In he gaed (an' there's few that
wad hae followed him), an' lookit a' round, an' listened. But there was
naethin' to be heard neither inside the manse nor in a' Ba'weary parish,
an' naethin' to be seen but the muckle shadows turnin' round the can'le.
An' then a' at aince the minister's heart played dunt an' stood
stock-still, an' a cauld wund blew amang the hairs o' his heid. Whaten a
weary sicht was that for the puir man's een! For there was Janet hangin'
frae a nail beside the auld aik cabinet; her heid aye lay on her shouther,
her een were steeked, the tongue projecket frae her mouth, and her heels
were twa feet clear abune the floor.
"God forgive us all!" thocht Mr. Soulis, "poor Janet's dead."
He cam' a step nearer to the corp; an' then his heart fair whammled in his
inside. For—by what cantrip it wad ill beseem a man to judge—she
was hingin' frae a single nail an' by a single wursted thread for darnin'
It's an awfu' thing to be your lane at nicht wi' siccan prodigies o'
darkness; but Mr. Soulis was strong in the Lord. He turned an' gaed his
ways oot o' that room, and locket the door ahint him; and step by step
doon the stairs, as heavy as leed; and set doon the can'le on the table at
the stair-foot. He couldnae pray, he couldnae think, he was dreepin' wi'
caul' swat, an' naething could he hear but the dunt-dunt-duntin' o' his
ain heart. He micht maybe have stood there an hour, or maybe twa, he
minded sae little; when a' o' a sudden he heard a laigh, uncanny steer
upstairs; a foot gaed to an' fro in the cham'er whair the corp was
hingin'; syne the door was opened, though he minded weel that he had
lockit it; an' syne there was a step upon the landin', an' it seemed to
him as if the corp was lookin' ower the tail and doun upon him whaur he
He took up the can'le again (for he couldnae want the licht), and, as
saftly as ever he could, gaed straucht out o' the manse an' to the far end
o' the causeway. It was aye pit-mirk; the flame o' the can'le, when he set
it on the grund, brunt steedy and clear as in a room; naething moved, but
the Dule Water seepin' and sabbin' doon the glen, an' yon unhaly footstep
that cam' plodding' doun the stairs inside the manse. He kenned the foot
ower-weel, for it was Janet's; and at ilka step that cam' a wee thing
nearer, the cauld got deeper in his vitals. He commended his soul to Him
that made an' keepit him; "and, O Lord," said he, "give me strength this
night to war against the powers of evil."
By this time the foot was comin' through the passage for the door; he
could hear a hand skirt alang the wa', as if the fearsome thing was
feelin' for its way. The saughs tossed an' maned thegether, a long sigh
cam' ower the hills, the flame o' the can'le was blawn aboot; an' there
stood the corp of Thrawn Janet, wi' her grogram goun an' her black mutch,
wi' the heid aye upon the shouther, an' the girn still upon the face o'
't,—leevin', ye wad hae said—deid, as Mr. Soulis weel kenned,—upon
the threshold o' the manse.
It's a strange thing that the saul of man should be thirled into his
perishable body; but the minister saw that, an' his heart didnae break.
She didnae stand there lang; she began to move again, an' cam' slowly
toward Mr. Soulis whaur he stood under the saughs. A' the life o' his
body, a' the strength o' his speerit, were glowerin' frae his een. It
seemed she was gaun to speak, but wanted words, an' made a sign wi' the
left hand. There cam' a clap o' wund, like a cat's fuff; oot gaed the
can'le, the saughs skrieghed like folk' an' Mr. Soulis kenned that, live
or die, this was the end o' 't.
"Witch, beldam, devil!" he cried, "I charge you, by the power of God,
begone—if you be dead, to the grave; if you be damned, to hell."
An' at that moment the Lord's ain hand out o' the heevens struck the
Horror whaur it stood; the auld, deid, desecrated corp o' the witch-wife,
sae lang keepit frae the grave and hirselled round by deils, lowed up like
a brunstane spunk and fell in ashes to the grund; the thunder followed,
peal on dirling peal, the rairing rain upon the back o' that; and Mr.
Soulis lowped through the garden hedge, and ran, wi' skelloch upon
skelloch, for the clachan.
That same mornin' John Christie saw the black man pass the Muckle Cairn as
it was chappin' six; before eicht, he gaed by the change-house at
Knockdow; an' no lang after, Sandy M'Lellan saw him gaun linkin' doun the
braes frae Kilmackerlie. There's little doubt but it was him that dwalled
sae lang in Janet's body; but he was awa' at last; and sinsyne the deil
has never fashed us in Ba'weary.
But it was a sair dispensation for the minister; lang, lang he lay ravin'
in his bed; and frae that hour to this, he was the man ye ken the day.